Fostering Growth Mindset at Youth Programs and at Home

“You can do hard things.”

I overheard this simple phrase one evening while my four-year-old son played in our living room as I prepared dinner in the adjacent kitchen.

As a working mom with young children, I often feel like my days are a sprint – running from drop offs to work and back again – to an evening of baths, tripping on wooden train cars, and a slightly overcooked dinner. Hearing these words stopped me and I took a break to observe my child entertaining himself with an imaginary rescue mission and his team of dependable stuffed animals.

“You can do hard things – just keep trying.” His words of encouragement to his stuffed monkey who was aiming the firetruck hose at the magnet-tile-constructed home that was engulfed in imaginary flames struck me in the same way I pause when I hear myself say something I grew up hearing from my own mother. It was reassurance, in my hectic day, that he hears me when I encourage him – my words reminding him that he can keep trying so he will be able to do the hard things that he can’t do just yet.


It’s a powerful little word. It can be the difference between a fixed mindset – accepting limitations as they are – and a growth mindset – recognizing the human brain is malleable; and with effort and practice, skills can grow, and change is possible.

As my son’s mom, I know that I have a role to play in fostering his growth mindset. As a professional in building systems that promote positive youth development experiences, I can point to evidence-backed quality standards that provide a roadmap for me to strengthen my own skills in this effort.

Program Quality Assessments (PQAs) are a suite of tools developed by the Forum for Youth Investment’s Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. These tools are designed to measure quality staff practices in youth program settings, but the practices at their core transcend the walls of youth programs, and I find them immediately applicable in my own interactions with the young people in my life. The scale on Fostering Growth Mindset from the Social and Emotional Learning PQA has a set of three items, each one describing practices that adults can do to support the development of growth mindset in young people:   

  1. Guiding or supporting young people in attempting to figure out for themselves how to improve.
    • For example, asking, “So, what could you do differently next time?”
  2. Supporting contributions or accomplishments of young people by acknowledging what they’ve said or done with specific, non-evaluative language.
    • For example, “The detail in that sentence helps me create a picture in my mind.” “You figured that work out from the context by yourself!”
  3. Attributing success to effort, strategy, attention, practice, or persistence.
    • For example, “Your brain is like a muscle, the more your exercise it, the better it works.” “It may take some extra practice, but you’ll get better at it.” “I see you worked hard to meet your goal.”

These are things I keep in mind when engaging in play with my four-year-old. When we rebuild the magnet-tile houses after the fires have been extinguished, we wonder together about what shapes and structures will be the strongest. I sit back to provide space and encouragement for him to take the lead when a wall falls down; I make sure he knows that the windows and doors are in place because he worked through his frustration when they weren’t standing up on their own, yet.    

In our work at the Forum’s Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, we recognize the impact adult practices have on youth experiences. Through our Youth Work Methods workshops, we put tangible strategies in the hands of adults who work with young people so they can build safe environments and supportive relationships so that young people can learn and grow skills. To engage in more strategies to foster growth mindset, connect with us to learn more about our Engaging Youth in Supported Struggle workshop.